EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on poverty in the Rochester region.
Miriam Vázquez should be the epitome of the American dream.
The Puerto Rico native moved to Rochester in 2007 after living in Connecticut for nine years. She earned an associate’s degree in medical billing from Everest College, but couldn’t find a job because she lacked experience.
After receiving aid from the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, Vázquez said she found a decent-paying job as a machine operator at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Penfield.
But she had to leave the job because she did not have access to affordable child care for her children — now ages 4 and 7 — near where she worked. She lives in the area’s poorest ZIP code, 14621 off Rochester’s Portland Avenue.
Vázquez found another manufacturing job closer to her Rochester home — with RP Fedder on Driving Park Avenue — but she only earns $10 per hour. She heads into work at 6:30 a.m. so she can be home by 3 to get her kids from school.
And her economic situation declined two years ago after her children’s father left the family.
"Sometimes with rent and the bills all together, it’s too much," Vázquez said during a Feb. 22 interview at Ibero-American Action League’s Family Center on Rochester’s Clifford Avenue.
But the 33-year-old said she keeps plugging away to create a better future for her children, including registering them for low-cost youth baseball teams with the Rochester Hispanic Youth Baseball League and free music lessons at a local recreation center.
"I’m trying to do everything possible to buy them better things, put them in better groups, expose them to a better environment," she said. "I want them to graduate, go to college, make money and take care of me."
A wake-up call
Vázquez represents the 42 percent of Monroe County households that are headed by women with children younger than 18, according to a report by the Rochester Area Community Foundation. The foundation’s findings on poverty in Monroe, Orleans, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Wayne, Wyoming, Seneca and Yates counties were released in December 2013.
"Unfortunately, there are too many parents who could tell a similar story," noted Brigit Hurley, a policy analyst for The Children’s Agenda, an advocacy organization that has been calling for increased funding for child care.
The RACF report highlighted several facets of poverty in the region: While its extreme forms continue to be concentrated in cities, poverty has spread to all areas of the region And although residents of all ages are struggling, the youngest and oldest families fare the worst.
The report revealed that Rochester is the fifth poorest of the top 75 metropolitan areas in the country. The Rochester school district is the poorest urban district in the state. Batavia, Canandaigua and Geneva are home to nearly 48 percent of the region’s poor, according to the report.
The report based these statistics on the federal government’s 2013 poverty guidelines, which estimate the cost for individuals and families to meet basic food needs. For example, according to the 2013 guidelines, a family of four with an income of $23,550 per year was considered to be at 100 percent of the poverty level.
"(Poverty) certainly is a community problem," said Ed Doherty, the foundation’s vice president and author of the report. "It’s a difficult report. … Many (people) have acknowledged that it’s helped them realize the significance of (regional poverty)."
Hurley said the report should sound an alarm bell for the area, especially for those who were surprised by its results.
"You can live in Rochester your whole life and not see the poor," she remarked. "So, the most important thing is to get the information out because so many people don’t have it. People are oblivious."
Shrinking resources, support
Norma Morales of Rochester didn’t need a report to tell her how many families like her own are suffering.
Morales represents the 40 percent of Rochester families who are raising a child or children with a partner. She and her common-law husband have a 5-year-old daughter, and they both receive disability assistance. They also are among the 33 percent of Hispanics in the region living in poverty, as compared to 34 percent of blacks and 10 percent of white families.
Morales suffers from diabetes and her partner, who is deaf, has back issues. Once they pay all their bills and exhaust the food purchased at the beginning of each month, they find themselves scrounging up meals with whatever they have left.
Rural, suburban challenges
Poverty has continued to spread across the 12 New York counties encompassed by the Diocese of Rochester, leaving many agencies struggling to meet increasing needs. In rural and suburban areas, transportation costs can make daily living a challenge, according to Ellen Wayne, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes.
"We see where families are struggling to meet even their own transportation costs back and forth from work," Wayne said.
She said such cities as Geneva, Canandaigua and Auburn have been identified as having higher rates of poverty than many of the rural communities that surround them. In Geneva, for instance, clusters of poverty have begun to broaden, Wayne said, noting that more people are qualifying for assistance than before.
And as families struggle to pay medical or food bills, Wayne said Canandaigua is experiencing an unexpected problem of homelessness, which she called an unfortunate and often hidden reality.
"The solutions that are going to resolve poverty have to be locally driven," Wayne said. "What we need in Canandaigua is not necessarily what you need in Auburn."
Additional attention is being paid to communities outside of Monroe County by Catholic social-service agencies, including Providence Housing Development Corporation, an affordable-housing developer affiliated with diocesan Catholic Charities.
"New funding strategies have forced us to look beyond Monroe County," said Deacon John McDermott, executive director of Providence. "There are a lot of really good affordable-housing developers here in Monroe County."
Providence manages two projects in Elmira and two in Geneva. The agency is currently working to secure funding to revitalize the second Geneva project, Clark Park Apartments, which provides four units for homeless individuals. Deacon McDermott noted that there is a significant need for emergency housing in Ontario County.
"We found out doing research that in all of Ontario County, there is only one emergency-shelter bed for homeless people," he said.
Meanwhile, he noted, an annual survey of homelessness identified 360 to 370 Ontario County children who were homeless. Newly homeless families wind up couch surfing or living in doubled-up temporary arrangements in others’ homes, he said, noting that research also has uncovered significant needs emerging among those ages 18 to 25.
Fixed incomes, rising costs
Senior citizens on fixed incomes likewise have struggled to meet their daily needs.
In his home in a manufactured-housing community in Penfield, Charles "Chick" Gravenor, 85, holds up his elderly dog, Toby, and dances with him to a song by Elvis Presley. Oftentimes, the only person he interacts with in a day is the Meals on Wheels volunteer who brings him a hot meal.
"They are already warmed for you, and they are very tasty," Gravenor said of the meals.
Gravenor, who grew up in Essex, England, moved to the Rochester area when he was 19. He worked at a variety of jobs, doing warehouse and farm work, and working as a maintenance man for a Lincoln-Mercury dealer.
He noted that many of his family members are now deceased.
"I’ve got my dog, and he’s on his way out," Gravenor remarked.
Meals on Wheels Director Phil Shippers said his agency has seen an increase in need in the past seven years that he has worked there. Rising need has meant that many recipients now get one meal a day instead of two.
"When I first started, more than two-thirds of the meal requests were regular double meals," Shippers said. "Now, seven years later, less than one-third of the requests receive double meals. We are not in a position to provide double meals for people who need them. In the last couple years, we have had a waiting list of a hundred people."
Segregation, poverty concentration
Regardless of when in life poverty strikes, Eugenio Cotto Jr. doesn’t need a report to tell him where Rochester stands.
"We have to be truthful, there is nothing in the report that we didn’t know 20 years ago, in fact 30 to 40 years ago," said Cotto, who is returning as Rochester Hispanic Youth Baseball League’s president this year.
But for the City of Rochester, the race riots that took place in the 1960s were a significant turning point, he said.
"We lost Kennedy, then we had the riots and then we lost Martin Luther King, and that all happened with a five-year span," he said. "Those events affected this area immensely."
Racial tensions arising from the riots triggered white flight to the suburbs, noted Gladys Pedraza-Burgos, Ibero’s chief operating officer who grew up in the former Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church neighborhood. And the resulting segregation persists to this day, Cotto and Pedraza-Burgos concurred.
The difference today is that segregation has evolved from racial to economic, Pedraza-Burgos noted.
"Even when minorities do well, they will leave the city and they will go to the suburbs. And even though the minority (families in the suburbs) may not do as well as the white, their kid will do better than their counterpart in the city because suburban schools are graduating kids at a much higher rate," she remarked. "There’s a perception that suburbs are a lot safer than the city, but definitely there is the concrete example of having higher graduation rates and more opportunities. Their schools offer more opportunities for kids to be really engaged and the expectation even by their own is to do well."
Yet great benefits can be achieved pockets of isolation — whether racial or economic — are broken up and kids are placed in mixed-income-level classrooms, said Hurley of The Children’s Agenda.
Another way to view segregation is to consider the example of successful family models, who have access to quality education, family networks and social connections that lead to good jobs, said Marvin Mich who is director of social policy at Catholic Family Center.
But a mother and child or children living on their own face a whirlwind of racism; limited opportunities for employment, affordable housing and child care; and what some believe to be a biased judicial system, Mich explained. The community must work together to address these social issues, he added.
The community also must go beyond just talking and take action, said the Rev. Marlowe Washington from Christ Community Church of Rochester.
"I am done talking. Everybody’s talking," he remarked.
His church will help lead that action by moving to Joseph Avenue to the heart of the report’s extreme concentration of poverty, Washington explained. The congregation will seek partners, but churches as institutions must return to its role as leader and tackle the issue of poverty head-on, he said.
"I am messed up because of that report," said the Bronx native, who moved to Rochester nine years ago from Providence, R.I. "So, no, I’m not going to sit in my corner. I’m going to bust out of that corner and do what God told me to do for the sake of this community. … And we will destroy the walls in this replica of Jerusalem and begin to say, ‘God how we can beg to repair the broken walls of Rochester?’"
EDITOR’S NOTE: The second part in this series, which will be published in the El Mensajero‘s April edition, will focus on what faith-based groups and cities around the country have done to help people out of poverty.